9. Your Questions Answered

9.1. Why opt for an Open Source VLE?

In 2005 the erstwhile Head of LTG Dr Stuart Lee wrote an interesting article on this topic entitled Finally a free lunch: the benefits of an open source VLE/LMS; even though he wrote about Bodington, (which is the software underpinning the original WebLearn,) most of the points pertaining to the open source nature of the product he made are as relevant today, to Sakai, as they were then.

The main benefits of choosing an open source system are:
  • flexibility: Oxford's IT infrastructure means that 'one size certainly does not fit all'; commercial VLEs do not support Oxford's model of devolved administration.
  • responsiveness: the central VLE team can respond very quickly to performance problems, bug reports and requests for new functionality.
  • customisation: of terminology, interface and tool set.
  • no licensing restrictions: there are no restrictions on the number of users allowed to access the service; in a research-intensive institution such as Oxford it essential that external collaborators can have an account and work within the VLE without us having to worry about licencing restrictions.
  • integration with other Oxford IT systems: it is easy to modify the software and follow the recommended Service Oriented Architecture approach recommended by the JISC; for example, we have integrated Sakai with the Oxford Single Sign-On (SSO) service (WebAuth), the new Oak Authorisation service and various library systems; in the future we are committed to embrace the Oak Groups service, the institutional RSS service OxItems, Nexus (SharePoint / Exchange) and Mobile Oxford.
  • external funding: open source software is generally more amenable to the use of open standards and thus allowed IT Services to pursue external research grants through the JISC and the like.
  • clear exit strategy - no product lock-in: content can be imported and exported with comparative ease.
  • free from commercial risk: ironically because there is no company backing the system there is thus no risk of the company being taken over by one of its rivals and us being forced to move to a new platform against our wishes!

9.2. Why Sakai?

We surveyed a number of open source systems with a view to defining an exit strategy for Bodington (previous VLE). The criteria were that any solution at Oxford must:
  • be modifiable / extensible (for example, open source);
  • not be tied to a course-based content structure;
  • offer fine grained access control and flexible group definition to support Oxford model of learning;
  • have devolved administration;
  • offer equivalent tools and services as those supported by Bodington;
  • have distinct advantages over the incumbent system.
Some of the main reasons we chose Sakai were:
  • Proven scalability / reliability: Sakai is used in vast institutions with tens of thousands of concurrent users.
  • Other comparable UK research-led and Ivy League institutions use Sakai, for example, Cambridge, Hull, STFC (formerly CCLRC), Stanford, Yale, MIT, UC Berkeley and ANU, meaning that there is already a strong community who have very similar goals to Oxford.
  • Sakai's strengths lie in its collaborative features whereas others concentrate more on pedagogy; it is felt that the former is more appropriate for an institution such as Oxford.
  • The Sakai community have expressed a real desire to incorporate key Bodington features into the core code base, for example, site hierarchy, reusable groups, and fine-grained permissions. (Sakai 3 will embrace many of these ideas.) In addition, the process for ensuring that Oxford's additions to the code base is better defined for Sakai than for other comparable open source systems.
  • Sakai is similar in nature to Bodington, but has a modern service-oriented architecture (SoA) with a simple interface for plugging in new tools or third-party web applications. (This architecture is recommended by JISC).
  • Sakai is built using Java which maps very well to the core competencies within IT Services.

9.3. How Does WebLearn Relate to Nexus (Groupware)?

WebLearn and Nexus (SharePoint / Exchange) are complementary systems, both provided by IT Services. WebLearn is primarily focused on Teaching and Learning whereas Groupware is aimed more at administration and research groups. It is also true that Nexus SharePoint part of the service is only just becoming available to early adopters (late 2009), so if you are looking to get started now putting documents up for selected groups to see (and haven't signed up to be a SharePoint early adopter), WebLearn can help with that. When SharePoint is available, IT Services will provide clear advice on which system to use; nobody will be 'forced' to use either system against their wishes.

WebLearn contains Teaching and Learning focused tools such as assessment and tutorial booking; Nexus SharePoint will support version control and work-flow. Which system you use will be partly based on what you are trying to achieve but may also depend on which system your department and its users are most familiar with. In order to help clarify the situation, the Office of the Director of IT have produced a very useful paper entitled WebLearn and Nexus - which tool for which activity?.

We are happy to answer any specific questions that people may have, drop us an email: weblearn@it.ox.ac.uk

Integration / Interoperability: IT Services is taking the issue of integration very seriously, indeed the Nexus project has a whole work package dedicated to ensuring that it will talk to other IT Services systems. IT Services is well represented on the Nexus Project Board, so we are confident that the WebLearn user's voice is feeding in loudly. (As a point of note it is the Project Board who are driving the project with IT Services implementing their recommendations.)

9.4. Is WebLearn Secure?

WebLearn does not currently have any known security issues and all connections and data transfers to and from the WebLearn are encrypted using the secure HTTPS network protocol.

The WebLearn team are kept constantly up to date by the Sakai Security Team and will act swiftly to close any loopholes should they appear.

The most likely breach of security will occur if users reveal their account details (e.g. through a user being taken in by a phishing attack or by having a computer infected by a spyware virus).

It is also possible for a naïve or careless site owner / maintainer to manually grant access to the general public or to a user that should not have access. Care needs to be taken in providing access to materials; maintainers are strongly recommended to attend WebLearn training delivered by IT Services.

9.5. Is WebLearn more secure than email?

WebLearn is hosted on a secure server administered by IT Services. All transactions are encrypted so, in general, the biggest risk again is a user revealing their account details to a malicious third party.

Email, on the other hand, is said to be no more secure than writing information on the back of a postcard as much of the traffic is sent unencrypted.

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